Islam′s image problem

In conversation with Habib El Mallouki, the renowned US Islam scholar John Louis Esposito talks about burgeoning Islamophobic and right-wing populist tendencies in Europe and the US as a consequence of the terrorist activities of radical Islamist groups

By Habib El Mallouki

In the words of the right-wing conservative jurist Carl Schmitt, every society apparently needs an enemy. In your view, is Islam serving this enemy function today in Western societies?

John Louis Esposito: Since I am not familiar with Schmitt′s work, I will not comment directly. But I think it is fair to say that historically tribes, ethnic and nation identities have defined themselves in terms of the ″other″, or more accurately, over and against the other, relying on stereotyping. Today, many in Europe and America have experienced a down-turn in their countries′ economies and, as polls report, fear for their future and especially their children′s. That has fed the growth of far right, anti-government, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political parties and candidates, as well as of Islamophobic (anti-Islam and anti-Muslim attitudes and behaviours) movements, authors and social media websites that feed bias, discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes. They exploit the horrific and barbaric actions of terrorists, who of course should be condemned and hunted down, to brushstroke and condemn Islam and the vast majority of Muslims.

An academic study on Islamophobia in Germany published last January showed that at least half of the German population holds Islamophobic views. Is this statistic also reflected in other Western societies?

Esposito: While the situation varies from country to country, it is fair to say that in many European countries – as in America – Islamophobia has become a major issue, growing enormously following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Is this prejudice historical in nature or are there other reasons for it?

Esposito: Obviously, attacks like 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK and subsequent domestic and international terrorist activities and attacks by al-Qaida, IS and others generate understandable fear which has then been exploited by politicians, political parties and an assortment of hate preachers. If you combine my response to question one with the very significant role of mass media and social media, which has become a major influence on popular opinion and culture, you have a combustible mix as a result.

Do Western media and the sometimes undifferentiated and one-sided public discourse bear some of the blame for Islam′s negative image?

Esposito: Media is market driven (″if it bleeds it leads″) and this emphasiaes conflicts, violence and terrorism. For example a Media Tenor study of 975,000 pieces of European and American coverage from 2001 to 2011 found that coverage of Islam and Muslims in 2001 resulted in 2% on extremism and 0.5% on Islam and the majority of ordinary Muslims. In 2011, the coverage jumped to 25% on extremism, but was still at 0.5% for mainstream Islam and Muslims.  Social media studies have been just as bad, if not worse. Just two major studies in American uncovered more than $165 million of funding for a network of Islamophobic bloggers and websites.

PEGIDA supporters in Dresden (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik)
Popular right gaining ground: "many people in Europe and the United States are currently experiencing economic decline in their countries. And as polls confirm, they fear for their future and in particular for their children. This has resulted in a surge of support for right-wing populist parties that are anti-Islamic and that oppose both the government and immigrant sections of the population", explains Esposito

After the triumphant victory of the "Front National" in France and several right-wing parties in various European countries, many Western intellectuals say the situation is reminiscent of the 1930s. Do you believe that parallels can be drawn between 21st century Islamophobia and 20th century anti-Semitism?

Esposito: Interestingly, a Gallup study based on major polling found that a significant number of those who were biased towards Muslims were also anti-Semitic. Major studies have shown that if you compare anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric, dehumanisation, cartoons and caricatures there are striking parallels.

In many schools, at institutions of higher education and throughout academia in Western societies, adolescents and young people are confronted with a predominantly negative image of Islam. What effect might this have on the future development of a globalised, pluralistic society?

Esposito: It can have a devastating effect. On the one hand there certainly are many positive forces. Compared to only a few decades ago, there are now courses on world religions and on Islam, Islamic history, politics and society in many schools and universities. Morever, there has also been an increase in good media programming (though much of it as discussed above is problematic). At the same time, there are schools and parents that increasingly seek to control the teaching and curriculum, to eliminate or limit coverage, or to even present biased coverage. In some areas of America, for example, parents object to any teaching about Islam and Muslims or simply want them to be portrayed as violent and evil, overlooking the fact that Christianity and Judaism have also had and continue to have militant religious extremists who, as in Islam, do not represent the mainstream majority, but are nevertheless dangerous.

The good news, though, is that in countries like America, Australia and in Europe, increasing numbers of the younger generation attend schools and universities that are multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Where that occurs, one finds that polls show that the younger generation is less biased than the older generation, who were raised and educated in different times and circumstances.

Interview conducted by Habib El Mallouki

© 2016

John Louis Esposito is professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He is publisher of the "Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Islamic World". In 2007 he co-authored the book "Who speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think" with Dalia Mogahed.